Pottery is something we find in great quantities at Vindolanda during each excavation season - usually into the tens of thousands of sherds per year. A volunteer excavator is almost guaranteed to find some when they are here. The types of pottery we find vary in origin, manufacture, size, shape, material, colour, design and decoration.
Here we focus on one of them - Samian Ware.
(Samian Ware bowl from Vindolanda)
What is it?
Samian Ware, or Terra Sigillata, is basically fancy Roman tableware. It is the most commonly used high quality pottery from Roman Britain.
Where does the name come from?
Samian Ware gets its name from the island of Samos where it originated.
Where was it made?
Roman Samian was mainly made in the southern, central and eastern areas of Gaul (France). Romano-British Samian was also produced in places such as Colchester, however the clay was inferior and not popular, and production did not last long.
When was it made?
It was produced between the first and second century, with East Gaulish Samian being produced into the third century.
Where is it found?
Samian is found anywhere in Britain, but mainly to the south of Hadrian’s Wall.
What does it look like?
Samian is fine, hard, red-gloss wares - the colour coming from the mineral illite in the clay. There is also black Samian. Some are plain, and some are decorated with various images/patterns such as animals, gods, gladiators, mythical beasts, flowers and foliage. They are found in varying sizes and designs, or forms, including bowls, dishes and cups. They were first classified by a scholar called Dragendorff in 1895 who identified 55 main forms, more forms have been added since then by others.
(A large sherd of plain Samian from this year’s excavations)
(A collection of decorated Samian sherds from this year’s excavations)
How is it made?
Plain Samian is wheel thrown then dipped by hand in to the slip before being fired in kilns. Decorated Samian is made from a mould. The clay is pressed into the mould, set on a wheel, the bowl is drawn up, dried and then shrinks off the mould. Next the base is added, dipped in slip, dried then placed in the kiln.
Who made it?
We can tell who made the pottery or the moulds by looking for maker’s stamps.
On plain vessels they are usually found on the centre of the base (see image below). The name stamps are pressed in to the bowl before it was fired to indicate who made it or their employer.
(A stamp from this year’s excavations on the base of a plain vessel – ‘C E L S ? M’)
Decorated vessels may have two makers marks. One is the mould maker’s name which was put on the actual mould as an advertisement stamp in amongst the decoration (see image below). On the mould it is the correct way but appears backwards on the vessel. They may also have a hand-written signature by who made the pottery, usually below the decoration.
(A stamp from this year’s excavations - backwards and amongst the decoration – ‘V E N I S’ ?)
Samian Ware can be dated pretty accurately by looking at the stamps, as certain makers worked at certain times. It is also a useful tool in dating buildings or contexts on the excavations.
In our Museum at Vindolanda we have an almost complete dinner set of Samian Ware which was imported from the famous La Graufesenque potteries (near the modern French town of Millau at the southern end of the Gorges du Tarn). Using the potters stamps we have dated this collection to the late AD80s. The pottery had been broken in transit and was thrown, unused, into the ditch of the fort.
Imagine how disappointing it would be to finally get your delivery only for it to be broken!
(The broken Samian Ware dinner set from Vindolanda)